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Russia, Xenophobia and Profiting From Migration Controls

Behind the thicket of Russian laws that treat migrant workers as a threat to health and security lie major revenues. Migration researcher Yan Matusevich unravels the confusion to find profitable exploitation working alongside populism.

Written by Yan Matusevich Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Russian nationalist leader Dmitry Dyomushkin at a protest rally on Revolution Square in Moscow. Ramil Sitdikov/RIA Novosti/Sputnik

Migrant labor contributes more to the Moscow city budget in taxes than all the oil and gas giants headquartered in Russia’s capital. Despite being a major budgetary resource for the state, migrants living and working in Russia continue to be portrayed as a potential threat that requires strict controls. Russia’s current migration management framework is designed to keep labor migrants on a short leash while at the same time extracting maximum revenue from the barriers it places.

The fact that most labor migrants can enter the country without difficulty as a result of a visa-free policy with CIS countries might make it appear welcoming. But once migrants are inside Russia, they encounter a legal framework designed to push them into a vulnerable state of semi-legality. They often find themselves on the wrong side of contradictory regulations they were unaware of.

Russia now applies a so-called “patent” system for regulating labor migration for citizens arriving from CIS countries that enjoy visa-free travel to Russia and are not members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Initially designed to allow migrants to work for private individuals as manual laborers or domestic workers, the patent model has been expanded to include all forms of labor migration. After indicating “work” as the purpose of their visit, labor migrants under the patent system have between seven and 15 days to register their place of residence – a difficult feat for recent arrivals, given the fact that the physical presence of the landlord is required at registration. Given the extreme time constraints, many migrants pay intermediaries or their future employers to register them at an address where they will not actually reside.

Migrants then have 30 days after arrival to apply for the coveted work patent in order to have permission to work legally in Russia. Patents are issued for one year and require migrants to submit monthly tax payments to ensure the validity of the permit (missing or late payments result in the permit being annulled). Obtaining the patent involves passing a full medical exam that includes testing for HIV, leprosy, tuberculosis, drug use and STDs. There have been numerous cases of labor migrants being deported after failing to pass the medical exam, including an Uzbek migrant worker who was sent back after being diagnosed with HIV.

Despite Russia having the largest HIV epidemic in the entire post-Soviet region, it is foreign migrants who are stigmatized as potential carriers of the disease. The fact that HIV infection rates are exponentially higher among Russians than among migrant workers is overlooked.

Since 2015, all labor migrants must additionally pass a mandatory test on Russian language, history and law. While the perceived poor grasp of Russian was used as justification by Russian officials for the introduction of this measure, the first results show a pass rate of 94 percet. The educational merits of the exam may be questionable, but testing fees generated upwards of 11.5 billion rubles ($194 million) in revenue for 13 certified Russian universities and over 300 affiliated partners.

Completing all of these steps in order to legally access the labor market is not only time consuming, it is expensive, particularly for migrants who often borrow from friends and relatives to finance their trip. Submitting a complete application in Moscow – without paying for services via the many intermediary companies that facilitate the process for a hefty fee – costs 11,600 rubles ($196). The migrant is also required to pay a flat monthly tax, which can vary from $32 in the economically poor republics of the Northern Caucasus to well over $100 in the oil-rich regions of Russia’s Far North.

As of 2015, citizens of Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are no longer required to go through the patent system and are meant to have unfettered access to the Russian labor market as members of the Eurasian Economic Union. In reality, however, minor violations such as residing at an unregistered address, not having valid health insurance or the lack of a valid work contract can constitute grounds for the fining, detention and deportation of migrants from these countries.

Even with a patent in hand, labor migrants encounter restrictions on certain kinds of employment. Back in 2007, the Russian government began a crackdown on migrants working in shops and markets by passing a number of measures intended to ostensibly protect Russian consumers in the interest of public health and national security. As a matter of first priority, migrants were initially banned from selling alcohol and working in pharmacies before a complete ban on migrants working in markets and kiosks.

These policies were a response to the rise in violence targeting migrant vendors and an attempt to appeal to growing xenophobia among the population. The explicit ban on the sale of alcohol and pharmaceuticals was not coincidental, but gave a nod to racist stereotypes about Muslim migrants peddling alcohol and drugs to innocent Russians, a myth that harks backs to the Russian Empire’s anti-Semitic laws of 1804, which banned Jews from selling alcohol.

While some of these complete employment bans have been loosened in recent years, new federal restrictions on migrants working as vegetable growers and drivers show that the state continues to impose limits on employment as a populist measure.

In June 2017, Russian authorities instituted a blanket ban on the use of foreign driver’s licenses in order to arguably improve road safety in the country, which lead to public transport coming to a virtual standstill in many Russian regions. While Russia has since exempted Armenia and Kyrgyzstan from the ban due to their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, many migrant drivers have found themselves without a job.

These bans are both a response to high levels of xenophobia and a means of reinforcing them. In fact, these restrictions legitimize racist tropes and harmful stereotypes by making them the basis of migration policy. While many sectors of the Russian economy depend on migrant labor, Russian authorities use bans on employment and restrictions on mobility as an effective mechanism for extracting fines and bribes while also perpetuating the perception of the migrant as a threat.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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